Cologne basketball community has high hopes for Final Four

Jan 22, 2020 by David Hein, Print
Cologne basketball community has high hopes for Final Four

Although Cologne has been home to two clubs that won German League titles between 1980 and 2006, the highest-level team currently in the city plays in the country's fourth division. The basketball leaders and fans of Cologne now hope that next spring's Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Final Four can show the sport's potential in the city and help it grow to renewed heights.

Cologne – spelled Köln in German – will be the second German city this century to host the Final Four, following Berlin in 2009 and 2016. And when the continent's four best teams converge on Lanxess Arena from May 22 to 24, it will be the fourth time that a city without a Euroleague Basketball team will host the event.

Stephan Baeck was just one of many in the city who was thrilled to hear the news that his home city would be hosting the 20th Final Four organized by Euroleague Basketball.

"It's a great decision, especially everyone involved in basketball in Cologne wants to use it to promote basketball in Cologne. It's a huge chance to show everybody in Cologne what basketball at the highest level can create and can be. Cologne with a great basketball tradition, can use that and make the next step," said Baeck, who is the sports director at the RheinStars Köln.

"It's a huge chance to show everybody in Cologne what basketball at the highest level can create."

Baeck has a major connection to basketball and Cologne. The former German international shooting guard helped Saturn Köln to the German League crowns in 1987 and 1988 (the club also won the title in 1981 and 1982). He was also in management for RheinEnergie Köln which claimed the league championship in 2006 with Sasa Obradovic as coach and Immanuel McElroy and Aleksandar Nadjfeji as star players.

But the club, which produced players like Marcin Gortat, Tibor Pleiss and Philipp Schwethelm, folded just three years later due to financial reasons, and Baeck has been doing his best since then to get the city back on the Bundesliga map.

"I've been fighting for basketball for the last 19 years. We've been successful in falling apart even after winning championships. So I'm really hoping that we can establish here a solid base for basketball," said Baeck, who was on the German team that won the 1993 FIBA EuroBasket title after having played in the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona.

In 2013, Baeck converged the licenses of two existing Cologne basketball clubs – MTV Köln and the former Köln 99ers – to start a new project called the RheinStars in the fifth division. He used his connection to Svetislav Pesic – Baeck's former coach with the German national team and ALBA Berlin – and convinced the coach's then club FC Bayern Munich to play a preseason friendly in 2013. The game drew some 6,000 fans in the Lanxess Arena.

"That showed me there is a big potential there. It's possible to draw people to the games and create something that is worth it," Baeck remembered.

RheinStars jumped immediately to the fourth division after the first season and then earned promotion to the third division the following campaign. A wild card allowed the club to jump from the fourth to the second flight for the 2015-16 season. But the league also forced RheinStars to play a number of their games in the Lanxess Arena with his capacity of more than 18,000 fans. That extra financial burden eventually resulted in Baeck and the club voluntarily dropping back to the third division for 2018-19. Last season, RheinStars were relegated back to the fourth division, where they are playing this season.

"Cologne basketball is not dead, and it will not just go away that easily."

Still RheinStars, which is the highest level club in Cologne basketball, is one of the biggest clubs in Germany, with 850 active member and about 55 teams among all ages and class levels. And the team also has a solid fan base, which has helped bring out upwards of 800 fans to most games in the 1000-capacity ASV facility.

"I think the year in the [fourth division] just gives the club the necessary time to re-start. A new start was needed after the mistakes of the last few years," said Sean Magin, a leading member of the fan club Flying Flönz.

Magin believes in basketball in the city, adding: "Cologne basketball is not dead, and it will not just go away that easily."

Magin says he and Flying Flönz will be at the Final Four in May. He also says his fan group will make sure the visiting fans feel at home.

"We will definitely reach out to the fans of the participating clubs and possibly others as well. And if fans or groups have questions, we would gladly be of help."

Baeck also knows the city and knows how much the Cologne basketball landscape could use a new facility with a capacity of 2,000 or 3,000 spectators. And a good job hosting the Final Four could be a step in that direction.

"It's one of the biggest chances we have to get all the decision makers, partners and leaders together and show what basketball at this level can create," Baeck said.

He definitely has the history of successful clubs on his side as Cologne ready to welcome Europe's biggest basketball event.